If you’re a frequent reader of Under the Ropes, you may be aware that when I’m not training, I’m teaching English. In many of my recent classes, my students and I have been discussing the Koh Tao murder case, in which two British tourists, David Miller and Hannah Witheridge, were brutally murdered. The case has been the focus of a huge amount of media attention since it happened on the 15th September, due both to the shocking nature of the crime, the seemingly quiet and idyllic island on which it took place and the apparently shambolic way it has been handled by Thai police. It’s sent shockwaves through the expat community of Thailand, with many following the case very closely. I am one of those, and have been scouring the internet daily for new developments since news of the murder first broke.
My interest in the case must have been noted by one of my students, an adult male who works in the Thai Navy. I say this because the following day after I’d discussed it with him, he decided to send me some information about it that he thought would be of interest to me. As it turned out, what he sent me went far beyond anything I would ever have wanted to see. It was photos of the victims as they were found at the crime scene. They were full-colour, graphic, close-up shots of both Hannah and David’s naked bodies. I shan’t go into further detail, but what I saw shocked me beyond belief. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at, nor that it had been sent to me by a student of mine. This raised various questions for me. Why would he think that I wanted to see that? Why would he want to look at that, let alone share it with other people? Didn’t he think that it was highly insensitive to do so? Was he not shocked by those pictures like I was? I’m not sure how he reacted upon first seeing them, but the sight of them gave me trouble sleeping for two to three days afterwards. I found it very haunting, indeed.
The media in Thailand often release images that would never make it into the public eye back home. Stories of fatal accidents are often accompanied by uncensored pictures. I’m often shocked when I scroll through my Facebook news feed and stumble upon various gory images, which some of my Thai friends, students and co-workers seem to have no problem with sharing. Another example of this was the July case of a 13-year old girl who was raped on an overnight train and thrown out of the window while the train was moving, being subsequently killed by the fall. The girl’s killer was sentenced to death on Tuesday. Her naked body was found in the bushes a few days after she was killed, a photo of which ended up on my Facebook news feed. Needless to say, it both sickened and saddened me to have come across it. The poor girl had already been raped and killed. Could we give her no dignity even after her death? It feels to me as if viewing photos such as these is a form of continued abuse of the victims and is extremely insensitive not only to them but also their families. It has been said that the photos of Hannah and David were leaked by police officers who posted them on their personal Facebook pages, just one of the many unfathomable things about the continuous farce of an investigation into their deaths, which is still underway. Even when it was first reported, Thai news outlets released the names of the victims before their families had been informed of their deaths. I could write for days about the whole saga, but it would detract from the original purpose of this post. Instead, I’ll direct you to a very interesting and well-written article by an ex-resident of Koh Tao, which talks about the island’s crime scene in the context of the murders. The handling of the case by Thai police also prompted this article by the Bangkok Post, which describes other ‘botched investigations’ of murdered foreigners in Thailand.
While the images I’ve already mentioned were shared via social media, similar material even can be found in national newspapers. After American actor David Carradine was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room in 2009, his naked body hanging in a closet, Thai Rath published a picture of how he was found. This caused outrage among his family members, who threatened legal action against the news outlet. Also in 2009, a 14-year old boy from the Isle of Man was tragically killed at a Pattaya water park after being sucked into the pumping system. A Thai camera crew arrived on the scene to film his body as it was discovered, which caused his father to lash out. He was subsequently ordered to pay compensation. Last year, a story emerged of a 12-year old Burmese girl who was freed from a life of slavery and torture. She was made to show the scars on her body in a room full of Thai policemen and photographers, half-naked with her chest bare. Of course, pictures subsequently circulated through the media. If that wasn’t enough, a full video of a murder actually taking place was shown on Channel 3 last year, after CCTV captured footage of a man shooting his fiancée and mother in a shop in Chon Buri. The footage of two people being murdered was shown in its entirety, yet the gun was blurred out. So, censorship does exist, but not as we know it. There seems to be very little logic to it, with cigarettes and alcoholic drinks often being blurred on out Thai soap operas on TV, while gory photos of real-life situations are freely available for viewing. Speaking of Thai soap operas, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha recently blamed them for violence and divisions in Thai society and called for better stories to be written, even mentioning that he would write them himself if need be.
While gruesome accidents and murders may never have been reported in such ways in the West, that is not to say that our media isn’t as intrusive. For ours, it is commonplace to leak private information and pictures of celebrities. UK residents will be familiar with the phone hacking scandal, in which employees of one of the UK’s biggest news corporations hacked the phones of celebrities, members of the royal family and politicians. If that wasn’t unethical enough, the same treatment was extended to the bereaved families of dead British soldiers, victims of the 2005 London bombings and Milly Dowler, a young schoolgirl who was abducted and murdered in 2002. As a result, Britain’s best-selling newspaper, News of the World, was forced into closure and the editor was sentenced to 18 months in prison. When another British newspaper, The Daily Mail published a less than flattering story about a birthday party held by member of the Thai royal family, it’s website was subsequently blocked in Thailand. This is in keeping with Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws. The internet has become even more heavily censored since the military coup took place, with pornographic websites and those deemed a ‘threat to national security’ being targeted. Attitudes towards media censorship and ethical reporting in Thailand are certainly very different to those in the West. We can’t criticize one and not the other because they’re both fucked up in different ways.
It was my exposure to the horrific pictures of the Koh Tao victims that sparked this post. Of course, the sharing of this kind of material is certainly not something that is unique to Thailand only, but my experience with it is something that reminds me of the many the differences between here and home. Perhaps the fact that pictures that some of us would never dream of showing publicly are shown regularly in the mainstream media causes an element of desensitization to such things, hence an unperturbed reaction when faced with more of such material. On the other hand, I’m not used to being exposed to such gruesome images, so I would obviously react in a much different way. This is something that Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu wrote about in a recent post of hers, The Hard Life of Dogs in Thailand. She wrote about how a dog was run over and almost killed by a truck, the reaction to which from the Thai owners was rather nonchalant in comparison to her own. It’s a rather awful story, but she told it beautifully. At the end, she wrote:
“This experience is an illustration of the way in which the surface friendliness, sunniness, and smiles of Thailand is not at all the whole of it. Well, that experience is in the context of a hundred other experiences that explain how a gentle, passive, Buddhistic and very hard-working nation of people can also be so harsh. Obviously this is true of any culture – the “hospitality” of the American South is also a performance under which very strong connections and familiarity with violence is present. The way in which the old men on the street were unaffected by the dog; the way in which his non-owner “owners” were calm in the face of this situation – part of it is performance, as I’ve seen crowds gathered around human death and injury with similar flatness – is partly what allows a culture where a sport that is considered one of the most “brutal” in the world is practiced (professionally) by children. There’s a degree of desensitization – folks who come from the Colorado mountains above where I grew up were never very upset when their 4th or 6th family cat was, yet again, eaten by a mountain lion or disappeared into the woods. When you’ve seen dozens of traffic accidents, when they print full-color images of dead bodies in the newspaper, there’s less of a shock response to seeing it again. It’s part of life. Maybe my sensitivity is something to be grateful for.”
To echo what Sylvie said, the reason for the difference in reactions to certain situations is a result of a difference in culture, environment and sometimes just personality. This is fairly obvious, but things such as these sometimes take you by surprise when you’re living abroad, immersed in a culture that is totally different from your own. The Koh Tao murder case has been a repeatedly shocking one for various reasons (note that Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth essentially blamed one of the victims by stating that girls in bikinis can’t be safe, ‘unless they are not beautiful‘ – despite the fact that she was fully-clothed before the murder took place). Still, I never expected to be as shocked as I was. I haven’t yet spoken to the student who sent me those pictures. I just haven’t come across him at work yet, but I’m almost dreading doing so in case he brings it up, which will certainly cause a degree of discomfort. He probably hasn’t given it a second thought, but those images have stayed with me.
Koh Tao and My Muay Thai Experience
To end by meandering slightly off-topic towards a lighter and more personal subject, Koh Tao was actually the first place that I actually experienced Muay Thai. While backpacking around Thailand in 2010, my first goal was to find somewhere to train, and I found that there at a gym called Island Muay Thai. Below is a picture of me getting my hands wrapped by P. Toon, the head trainer. It’s funny to look back on a time when I needed someone else to wrap my hands for me. I even cringe at the fact that I’m training in a crop top in that picture, something I would never do now. At the time, I could never have predicted that I would still be in Thailand four years later. I certainly never would have thought that I would be fighting, or that Muay Thai would have become such a huge part of my life. I get a huge sense of accomplishment when I think of how far I’ve come since then and am excited by the prospect of what else is to come. It’s certainly been a journey, one that’s been constantly filled with surprises and lessons. I’m very grateful to still be on that journey.